Friday, May 13, 2016

To Be (Or Not to Be) "White"

It seems to me as if the past 45 years have been a process of unlearning as much as learning, or maybe even 60/40! This manifests in all areas, but especially in my seeing and understanding of what is called "race" in the U.S.. And I fully expect that my thoughts today will continue to unfold and shift as more space is made for truer seeing.

Words shape how we see the world. There is a language of sex and gender that helps cement the dominant paradigm into U.S. society. That is why, in the 70s when I was a teen and young adult, there was a push to change the lexicon with gender-neutral labels for people in jobs (letter-carrier instead of postman; flight-attendant rather than stewardess). This is still evolving and has moved into resisting the accepted gender binary language in favor of understanding gender as a continuum with the inclusion of gender-neutral pronouns to represent and also instigate that understanding.

There is an equally unseen yet pervasively influential lexicon of race that cements duality into our society. The very words "black" and "white" are opposites. They describe extremes of color that are not represented in any human skin tone. They are words that represent political and historical social norms and expectations, not what is seen and known. By accepting and using these words to describe ourselves and others, we reinforce the myth of "race" and the duality of humanity.

This is not an academic problem. The consequences in the real world are deadly. They include (but are certainly not limited to) racial-profiling, stereotyping, the wrong person being accused and/or convicted of a crime and murder.

This is black.
I recently read a local news article about a physical attack on someone. The police described the people they were seeking in relation to the incident as "three black males." Now close your eyes and picture three black males. What would each of our pictures look like? What does a "black male"look like?


The solution is not to "not see race" but to see what is in front of us. See the actual details of skin tone and texture; hair texture, color and length; height; body build; perceived age. When people want to know the race of a suspect, how often are they really asking "is the person from our team, or 'their' team?" In the human family, who do we make "them?"

I know it's much more complicated than that. We are not starting from today. The duality was carefully constructed by an oppressor class that has inflicted centuries of harm and created systems and institutions that continue to do so today. Also, the "race" based caste system includes other "others" and a host of intersections that confer more or less access, more or less pain. Having been defined as "white" in a centuries-old caste system, it feels cowardly to refuse that label, as if I'm refusing accountability for a system that I benefit from at the expense of people with other labels.

At the same time, accepting the label "white" makes me feel complicit in an imposed language of racial caste that is not based in the ultimate truth of who we all are as humans. And it divides me from my own rich and complex heritage, and from an accurate description of my physical self. A paradox indeed.

This is white.
 It certainly seems incorrect to try to back away from the labels that act as rallying points for people who have been most hurt by systems of oppression, even if those labels were imposed by those very systems. Yet those labels also act as barriers sometimes. Sometimes differences between people sharing a label can be very stark, while there can be a sense of closeness and kinship across labels. Sometimes it is not even clear which labels a particular person should adopt. Paradox again.

There are no answers coming at the end of this reflection.  Just a profound sense that our shared humanity has been interfered with in fundamental ways that involve everything from the starkness of lives destroyed to the subtlety of minds constrained by the language of oppression.

 Sometimes changing the language we use is an attempt to avoid a truth. Sometimes, changing the language we use, changes how we see the world enough for us to take action to make change. 

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